Friday, 12 September 2014

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

September 12

Much as ever, the day begins with another battle. Not any old battle, mind you, because this is 490 BC, which can only mean one thing: the good old Battle of Marathon – and lose ten points all those of you who just muttered, “Now known as the Battle of Snickers.”

It all came about when the Persians, under King Darius I, started to get a tad browned off by Greek involvement in the Ionian Revolt and decided that what was called for here was a spot of old-fashioned subjugation, to show them who was boss. Which was very much the Persians in those days. Having finally crushed the revolt in 494 BC, the Persians sailed off for Attica, landing near the town of Marathon, a name, incidentally, that means “place full of fennels” because there was so much of the stuff growing there. Fennel has long been used for the treatment of flatulence and it was probably round about now that the Persians must’ve been wishing there were some within picking distance because, despite the fact that they outnumbered the Athenians by almost three to one, the plucky Greeks were now bearing down on them in a decidedly unfriendly fashion and, once they got started at marching, they just didn’t stop. They walked right over the Persians. To make matters worse, the Greeks were fully armoured and tooled up to the teeth, whilst the Persians, in the fatal belief that the mere sight of Persians would be enough to make anyone turn and run, wore “at most, quilted jerkins” for protection and were armed with nothing but bows and slings. It seems Darius hadn’t quite thought the thing through and they got trounced. The Persians fled in utter panic and huge numbers were slaughtered.

Probably more famous than the battle itself are the legends that surround it, the main one being, of course, that of the messenger, Pheidippides, running to Athens with news of the victory, though other versions have it that he was sent from Athens before the battle to get reinforcements from Sparta, some one hundred and forty miles away, arriving the next day (energised, no doubt, by tasty peanut-flavoured confectionary bars) but then promptly dropping dead of exhaustion. Hope he managed to get the message out first, after all that. On his way there, or on his way back, depending on who you believe, Pan is supposed to have appeared to him and said, “Here, why aren’t you Greeks revering me, then?” To which the reply was, “All right then, we will from now on, mate.” This promise was good enough for Pan, who then appeared on the battlefield and instilled in the Persians the very brand of mindless frenzied fear that he gave his name to: Panic.

The Greeks did later establish a grotto to Pan at the Acropolis but, being fickle, they’d hedged their bets rather and asked Artemis the Huntress to help out too, offering to sacrifice as many goats to her afterwards as the number of Persians that got slain in the battle. Once the final count up of the dead was known - 6,400 Persians, 192 Athenians and 11 Plataeans (mates of the Athenians) – there had to be a bit of a rethink, along the lines of “Where’re we going to get that many goats from?” settling instead on an annual five hundred until they’d fulfilled the bargain. It is recorded that they were still slaughtering ‘em ninety years later.

 Fast forward to September 12 1609 and Henry Hudson has just sailed into the river that will eventually be named after him. Though he didn’t actually discover it and he wasn’t even looking for it. He was trying to find the way to China (well, Cathay, he’d’ve said) but, while he was there, he thought he might as well claim the land for his Dutch employers, where a settlement sprung up, known as New Amsterdam right up until the British arrived to pinch it for themselves, renaming it after the Duke of York (later James II) in 1664. Our Henry might have been a dab hand at getting things named after himself, including the river, Hudson Bay, Hudson County, the Henry Hudson Bridge and the town of Hudson but, unfortunately, when it came to finding the way to China, he was a complete washout. Eventually, his crew got fed up and wanted to go home, so they mutinied and set the hapless Hudson adrift in a shallop (a kind of barge, much favoured by the Egyptians) and he was never seen again.

Well, that’s not entirely true because he did turn up again, much later on, still nowhere near China, disappointingly, but in an altogether more unexpected place: in a supporting role in Rip Van Winkle. This, of course, is Washington Irving’s famous story set around the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and, as we recall, Rip was something of a shirker, which earned him many a taste of the rough edge of his wife’s tongue and, rather than suffer any more of her forthright assertiveness, he heads off with his dog, Wolf, up into the mountains. While he’s there, who should he bump into but the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his crew playing nine pins (as you would, up in the mountains) and drinking moonshine, so Rip has a drop or two himself and then promptly falls asleep. When he wakes up twenty years later (yes, it was only twenty) he discovers his beard is a foot long and his dog has vanished but also that he’s missed the whole of the war and his wife has died in the meantime, allowing him to fall back into his habitual idleness. So it all worked out pretty well in the end. Apart from the dog, of course.

This day 1624, long before New Amsterdam ever became New York, submarines were making their way along the Thames. That may be hard to believe but, in actual fact, the first workable prototype was designed by William Bourne as early as 1578, an enclosed boat bound in leather that could be submerged using a gigantic screw thread and then rowed underwater, the one tiny snag, as can be seen in his plan, being that he apparently forgot to leave room for the crew. Otherwise, however, Bourne was pretty much the business when it came to inventing, having come up with an early system of semaphore using lights, and a device consisting of two glasses that, arranged properly, would “allow you to read a letter from a quarter-mile away” (Aha, so that was his game, was it?), predating the earliest known telescope by a good thirty years. The first submarine to make it as far as being built was constructed in 1605 (year of the Gunpowder Treason) by Magnus Pegelius but, alas, it got stuck in mud, where it remained.

Then along came Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebbel, a Dutchman (they’re thick on the ground this week, aren’t they?) and, in 1620, he built the first navigable submarine, though it was the later 1624 version that grabbed all the headlines when he tested it on September 12. This was based on Bourne’s original idea and could carry sixteen passengers, one of whom was none other than Charles II, making him the first monarch to travel underwater, and it (and King) happily went up and down between Westminster and Greenwich for three hours at depths of four to five metres. Luckily for Charles, the microphone had not yet been invented, so there wouldn’t’ve been some ineffable dullard armed with just such an instrument of torture to point out all the sights as they went by, though that would’ve been a tough ask at five metres underwater. Strangely, the Admiralty weren’t in the least bit enthusiastic – rather like Earl Haig, who couldn’t see any point in the machine gun when he already knew the Great War would be won by cavalry. Drebbel made other innovations in measurement and control systems, optics and chemistry, posterity marking all his achievements by having a very small lunar crater named after him.

Today in 1818 was born Richard Jordan Gatling (that’s him, looking finger lickin’ good), making it a great day for getting things named after you, in his case the Gatling hand-cranked machine gun. And for inventing too, seeing he also came up with a screw propeller for steamboats (only to discover that one had been patented just months earlier), a wheat drill, a steam tractor and later a motor-driven one, all followed by his infamous gun. Though, once again, this wasn’t the first of its kind: a man called Puckle invented one a century earlier, in two versions. The first was intended for use against “Christian enemies” and fired round bullets; the second for shooting Muslim Turks, which used square bullets, the idea being that it would convince the Saracens of the "benefits of Christian civilization," seeing the square ammo was thought to be more damaging. They just didn’t fly where you wanted them to, so had to be abandoned. Which showed the Turk what’s what and no mistake. One newspaper drily remarked that the gun "only wounded those who hold shares therein".

Back with Gatling, he got smallpox, which made him interested enough in medicine to get an MD, though he never practised, being more into the inventing lark and thus went to the other extreme by concentrating on firearms. In 1861, with perfect timing for the Civil War that had just started, he invented his eponymous gun, having noticed that most soldiers in the conflict were being lost to disease rather than to gunshots, so he determined to put that right straight away. It was, therefore, for purely medical reasons that he came up with the idea, arguing that, “if a machine could enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, this would supersede the necessity of large armies, and thus battle and disease would be greatly diminished.” Well, certainly, if everyone’s already been shot to pieces by your gun.

On September 12 1846, Elizabeth Barrett eloped with Robert Browning. Which is how many a source actually puts it – not that they eloped together but that she eloped with him, in a kind of underhand “if there’s any blame in all this chicanery” type of way. And, if there is any fingerpointing to be done in the matter, then surely it better be at this Browning fellow, seeing she was already a published author, mates with Wordsworth, and daughter of a man of wealth, whereas Bobby Browning were nowt but the son of a lowly bank clerk who had had his own early poetry harshly criticised. Old man Barrett thought Browning nothing better than an overly hirsute gold-digger, so the courtship had to be conducted in secret, lasting twenty months, during which they penned between them some six hundred letters (that’s about one for every day). At the end of which, whilst the father was away, she “sneaked” (that’s what is says) off to meet Browning at St Marylebone Parish Church and married him. Though she did go home straight after, just in case. But only for a week, after which she “fled” (it says) with Browning to Italy and never saw her father again. By, she were a bad lot, were that ‘un. This day was also chosen by Winston Churchill in 1908 to marry Clementine Hozier, and by John F. Kennedy in 1953, for his wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier, though how much sneaking and fleeing was involved in their nuptials is not mentioned anywhere …

Well, we seem to have no room left to even mention that today in 1878 saw the erection of Cleopatra’s Needle in London, which is one of a pair with the one in New York (imagine the size of the mantelpiece you’d need!) or that there’s a time capsule buried underneath it, containing (amongst other things) a copy of Whitaker's Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and a set of twelve photographs of … “the best looking English women of the day.” It was supposed to be a gift to celebrate Nelson’s victory on the Nile.

None either to note that today, in 1940, the famous Lascaux Cave Paintings were discovered. By a dog called Robot, actually. And closed again in 2008, thanks to all the sweaty visitors and boffins turning them mouldy. They last for seventeen thousand years and then along we come. So we’ll just give a passing nod to the biggest ever score in first class football, which was in 1885 when Arbroath beat the unfortunately named Bon Accord (who didn’t even turn up with any proper kit) by 36-0, the ref disallowing five more (possibly seven, according to the man in black himself) for offside. In Madagascar, AS Adema did beat Stade Olymique L'Emyrne by 149-0 but this hardly counts, as they were all deliberate own-goals, scored as a protest against a refereeing decision. Sometimes that’s what it takes to really get your point across …


"Greek Phalanx". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Pan satyre della Valle" by User:Jastrow, 2004. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Last Voyage Of Henry Hudson" by John Collier - [1]l. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Irvington statue of Rip van Winkle" by Daryl Samuel - Own work. Via Wikimedia Commons -

"William Bourne Inventions or devices 1578" by William_Bourne, in "Inventions or Devices" - Own photograph at the Musee des Sciences de la Vilette, Paris. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Richard Jordan Gatling". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

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